New Exhibit at the YSU Archives & Special Collections

For the past year the YSU Archives & Special Collections staff was hard at work building the exhibition “University Presidents: The Men and their Legacies” .  In it you will find a fascinating array of historical objects from the seven men who led this institution for the last 100 years. Along with the usually historical objects that one finds in a museum exhibit, we are also unveiling a new audio delivery device-sound domes. These domes allow one to hear audio reproductions in a confined space, without the sound disturbing anyone outside of the dome’s sound area. The exhibition is open to the public, Monday thru Sunday during normal library hours and can be found on the 5th floor of Maag Library. So when you have some time or just bored of studying, come on over and see the legacy of Youngstown State University and the men that helped shape it.

Click here to search entire exhibit archive.

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New Archival Finding Aid Site

To better improve accessibility to our archival collections, the archives staff has developed a new finding aid site. This site will house all of our finding aids for our processed collections (don’t know much about finding aids, click here) and eventually all of them will have links to the documents themselves (click here to see an example). The finding aids will also be searchable on our Library ILS system.  So, if you need access to primary source material concerning YSU, this is the place to look.

Happy Holidays from the YSU Archives & Special Collections Staff!

Information and Myth-making

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Joseph Goebbels, Reichsminister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945

It has been said that the ability to perpetuate myths is one of the most powerful cultural catalysts: newspapers, cable T.V, and now the internet all play a crucial role but the most influential factor maybe society’s distant chords of memory, with emphasis on the memory (or in some cases, the lack of). Information and the mediums that support its delivery comprise the pedagogical tools that enable people to acquire and produce new ideas or revamp old ones. But what happens when information is disinformation or misinformation? When that occurs, what becomes of some of our previous premises that arose from such information? Do they continue as dominating cultural beliefs or are they eventually dismissed?

In the 1960’s, under the cauldron of the Cold War the United States and Soviet Union waged relentless asymmetrical warfare. The use of propaganda and disinformation took on paramount importance in this fight. Within the Central Intelligence Agency one source of “unplanned” disinformation was the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS)1. The purpose of the FBIS was to monitor radio broadcasting (including CIA fabricated information) around the world from more than a dozen listening posts located in such varied places as Hong Kong, Panama, Nigeria, Cyprus and San Francisco. The FBIS also determined whether pro-western clandestine transmissions were reaching their intended targets. Many of the programs monitored by the FBIS were disseminated within the U.S. government, media, and academia.

The FBIS did not differentiate between sources when it forwarded its reports to subscribers (government agencies, universities, corporations, and the media were the major subscribers to this service), so no one knew if they were getting accurate information or simply disinformation. Even though the editors of the FBIS were members of the CIA’s Intelligence Directorate, the operators in the clandestine services refused to reveal their covert operations (which included the above mentioned covert radio transmissions) to the FBIS, therefore a certain amount of information was simply disinformation (unbeknownst to the FBIS). The CIA’s Clandestine Services department seemed untroubled by this development, showing little if no regard for misleading the media, academia and other CIA analysts, State, and Defense department colleagues as well.

So can we differentiate between “good” information and disinformation, if that’s at all possible? I believe only by systematically studying the sources, context, and provenance of the information can we arrive at an approximate objectivity. In the case of the FBIS, a topological and functional analysis would needed to have been done before the information could have been evaluated for its degree of objectivity. The analysis could have asked the following questions: what function (role) does the FBIS have; how does this function relate and affect other departments within their parent organization; what are the records or information that are created as a result of that internal and external functionality; and what is the temporal and spatial influence of the information (who is using it and for how long)?  In addition to a functional analysis, a documentary analysis could also have been done, (if there were documents to study, see: previous blog post on, How to Study Documents), which could have yielded further positive results.2 By answering or attempting to answer these questions, a higher degree of scrutiny and possibly better understanding of the information could have been acquired.3

So, do we know the extent of damage done by the creation of disinformation by both Cold War protagonists? No and I would venture to guess that most people do not care. This should not be dismissed simply as a cynical remark but one based on the fact that our society is deluged with a constant flow of information. Some good and some not so good but when faced with an abundance of data, people will generally fall back on preconceived notions and myths (such as the popular urban legends of the CIA assassinating JFK or selling drugs in South Central Los Angeles).

“History is the enemy of memory,” cautioned historian Richard White, after researching the archival sources and discovering many of his mother’s stories (which consisted of her childhood memories in Ireland) to be false.4 However, did Richard White prefer the truth or were the stories told to him of greater importance even though they had a layer of hyperbole and myth-making (we could further discuss the ambiguity of truth5 and the influence of story telling in shaping societal constructs)? It is the responsibility of document curators, archivists, librarians and researchers to make sure myths and memories do not replace empirical truth (or at the very least we need to create a level playing field) but we must not lose sight of this dichotomy: people generally prefer a good story, even an embellished one, regardless of its veracity. While “the truth maybe stranger than fiction,” many times it is not as riveting. I began this blog with a quote from Joseph Goebbels and his views on the “truth,” and I will end it with my own observation.  “People may believe a lie if repeated long enough but people tend to get bored with the truth much sooner.”

(Click here to read more on the question of information permanence).

  1. Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks, The CIA and The Cult of Intelligence (New York: Doubleday, 1980).
  2. To read more about documentary analysis, see: Luciana Duranti, Diplomatics: new uses for an old science (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998).
  3. To read more about functional analysis, see: Helen Willa Samuels, Varsity letters: documenting modern colleges and universities (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998).
  4. Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (Society of American Archivists, 2009).
  5. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (New York: Meridian, 1955).

Mussolini, MI-5 and the Question of Permanence

Recently new archival material has been uncovered that sheds light on a previously unsubstantiated rumor. Mussolini-also known as Il Duce-was for a short period of time in the employment of British MI-5. According to Cambridge historian Peter Martland, who discovered details of the deal struck with the future dictator, said: “Britain’s least reliable ally in the war at the time was Italy after revolutionary Russia’s pullout from the conflict. Mussolini was paid £100 a week from the autumn of 1917 for at least a year to keep up the pro-war campaigning – equivalent to about £6,000 a week today.” The payments according to the Guardian were authorized by Sir Samuel Hoare, an MP and MI-5’s man in Rome, who ran a staff of 100 British intelligence officers in Italy during this period. At the time, Mussolini ran a right-wing newspaper, the Il Popolo d’Italia, which made him an attractive “asset” to western intelligence agencies. Along with his “literary talents,” Mussolini had a penchant for giving political opponents “offers they couldn’t refuse,”  Mussolini made available to Hoare and MI-5, Italian army veterans who beat up peace protesters in Milan (a possible preview to his fascist black shirt units) as a way to enlist continued Italian support for the war.

While the above story is fascinating, with features of skullduggery and subterfuge, what really interests us are the story’s archival nuances. The context of this event, revolve around Cambridge historian Peter Martland and his discovery of payment references proving Hoare’s (and MI-5’s) complicity with Mussolini. But more than that is the fact that Hoare kept the references and mentioned it in his memoirs, published in 1954. Why the story never took off when it was first told decades ago is not known (no actual documentation?) but the largely ignored story  has obtained new life with the recent find in Hoare’s papers (except in Italy). The act of creating and keeping the references by Hoare is interesting in of itself because it proves that the operation followed some type of protocol and that Hoare was not freelancing, or so it would seem. Consequently, this operation possibly might have been known by higher-ups at MI-5 because if it was not, why would he have created and kept the references to the payoffs, for historical purposes…I doubt it. It more than likely seems that Hoare wanted to create a paper trail to either protect himself or the possibly more mundane act of just keeping good accounting records (go figure).

Another area of archival concern implied within the article is preservation. The question to pose about this event is, would Hoare have kept the records if they could have been disseminated electronically at the point of creation and would Martland have discovered them years later if they would have been created within an ephemeral electronic environment, especially one with an automated records destruction cycle? I don’t have the answers to these questions but they do hang over us like the Sword of Damocles. How do we preserve electronic records but more importantly can we get to records that can shape or change history? It would seem that the ability to create and store in an analog environment but more importantly to keep such documentation private are one of the attributes that make paper so inviting to the records creator. Would people be so quick to create documentation in a more widely accessible medium, if they believed it would incriminate them in nefarious activities or would such previously recorded acts move to a more “private recording sphere?”

One final point to discuss is the authenticity of the documents. Some people might question these records as fraudulent but I would contest those charges with a couple of points. First, why would Hoare have referred to the event in question in his memoirs, if it was not true and what possible advantage would certain personnel in British Intelligence have in admitting to being associated with a known thug? By 1944 being associated with fascism was seen unfavorably, after all this was not 1938 when Hitler was chosen as Time “Man of the Year,” when the world was still enamored with Fascism. So, I cannot see there being any reason for the fraud but one never completely knows.

This story did not end well for all of the characters involved, both protagonists, Mussolini and Hoare, would meet again but not before Mussolini had turned many of his Italian WWI veterans into the elite Black Shirt shock troops (MI-5 money helped) and used them to march on Rome. After taking control of Italy, Mussolini quickly turned his ambitions to recreating the Roman Empire which brought him back into contact with his old paymaster. It was under the auspices of the Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea) conflict in which then British foreign secretary, Hoare signed the Hoare-Laval pact, which gave Mussolini control over Abyssinia and sowed the seeds for the eventual war in Saharan Africa. As history tells us, Mussolini would end his conquering days swinging from the gallows, while Hoare would be made Peerage as Viscount Templewood, of Chelsea in the County of Middlesex after serving as ambassador to Spain during WWII.

Freedom of Information Act Requests

Many times researchers, citizens and students are not aware of one of the most powerful tools available to them: the Freedom of Information Act. What are FOIA requests? The FOIA is a federal law (established in 1966) that establishes the public’s right to obtain information from federal government agencies. This law however excludes: the Congress, the federal courts, and parts of the Executive Office of the President that function solely to advise and assist the President (like the “Czars”). Now, before you go out and try to discover any skulduggery or think you may be the next Woodward and Bernstein, be sure that you follow all of the guidelines and know exactly what you are requesting. Be aware that FOIA’s are not free, individual agencies can charge for research and coping but fees are waived many times if you can prove that your endeavor is of a scholarly nature. Fortunately, the National Security Archive (read our previous website review of this informative site) has made jumping into the quagmire of government records requests much easier. The NSA has put together a on-line manual that guides the researcher step-by-step and helps them avoid the usual pitfalls of requesting anything from the government. I highly recommend it if one is willing to go down this arduous but  enriching research path.

Click here to go to the guide.

National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, what is it?

Many times when researchers are looking for primary sources they forget or have never heard of the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections.  As stated on their website, “the mission of the NUCMC program is to provide and promote bibliographic access to the nation’s documentary heritage. This mission is realized by NUCMC production of cataloging describing archival and manuscript collections held by eligible repositories located throughout the United States and its territories. The program’s mission is further realized by the provision of free searching, via NUCMC gateways, of archival and manuscript cataloging in OCLC WorldCat.” This often overlooked resource is a powerful tool that enables researchers to effectively reduce uncertainty and ambiguity, which should always be part of any research strategy.

Click here to go to the website.

Light the Wick

What is Light the Wick? Light The Wick is a weekly glimpse at the goings-on along the art corridor (Wick Avenue) at Youngstown State University. This show is completely student produced and gives the world a glimpse at our community here at YSU.

See the latest episode of Light the Wick.

Information Society and Finding Aids

The finding aid (sometimes referred to as the representation of records) has remained the main staple of describing, controlling and arranging of archival collections for the last century.  Digitally the finding aid has migrated into the digital world through MARC, EAD, XML and DACS markup tools. This migration however was only to describe analog objects in a digital environment, it did not truly address the quandary of born digital objects. While new systems are being built around EAD models (Archives Tool Kit, ARCHON) the dilemma of vast quantities of homogeneous and unique series being transferred, accessioned, and described to the same level of current analog objects does not truly exist (there are exceptions, the Maryland and Washington State Archives being the best example of archives doing mass digital transfer and preservation). Where does that leave the finding aid (in its current state), does it have a home in the new born digital world or will it be replaced…. with the google search?

Before we continue, it behooves us to describe the function and structure of a finding aid. The finding aid serves two main objectives: it provides both administrative and intellectual control. The administrative control addresses several points: location, the record source, provenance, and general description. The intellectual control answers questions pertaining to researcher needs: detailed information about records within a series or record group (such as biographical information); information on unique information that may be found and the relationship with other records in the collection or repository holdings. The structure of most finding aids usually follows the record group topology: preface, introduction, biographical sketch or entity history, scope and content, series description, container and item listing. There are exceptions to this rule as most governmental archives follow a series or functional description structure (the Australian Records Continuum and Canadian Macro-Appraisal theories being the most popular). Regardless of what methodology one follows, a finding aid should meet several basic criteria: they should be written for general researchers; have a certain level of objectivity; they must be well written, succinct and concise; they must take into account the different subject areas that a collection (or series)  may address; and finally something that has not been implemented-the annotation of the archivist’s pedegogy and epistemology.1

We have discussed what a finding aid does, now we will discuss the evolution of it. The five levels of arrangement: repository, record group (collection), series, file unit, and item were created by Oliver Wendell Holmes. But the anthropological evolution of archival representation and description go back to Archives Nationale and the Prussian State Archives (see previous blog on part of this discussion, Respect des Fonds and Original Order, breaking it and keeping it), their creation of the modern system of arrangement and registries had the most profound effect upon modern archives and consequentially the finding aid. The evolution continued with the founding of the National Archives (now known as the National Archives & Records Administration, or NARA) in the 1930’s, the (NARA) staff upon discovering the lack of records organization, decided to deal with the predicament by inventing a records management system to control the life cycle of records. But the real impetus for many of our current standards can be found in the Historical Records Survey and the organization of county court house records during the Depression. (For further discussion on this subject, see: Richard C. Brerner’s, Archival Theory and Practice in The United States.)

Philosophically, the finding aid is the hypostatisation of archival reification.2 If archiving were an abstract object (collecting and describing the physical documentary temporal spatial environment) than its resultant physical creation or byproduct is the finding aid (the hypostatisation of archival reality: the reification).3 However, within the digital world the need for this changes dramatically, or does it? If the finding aid is the representation of  structures, epistemologies and ontologies within an analog environment, how does the digital structure change it? While we could take this argument and pursue how society itself is going to be changed and therefore documentary creation and collection (read my previous blog: Archival Appraisal and Selection in the Information Society), instead I will focus my analysis on the final resultant (an attempt at a all encompassing analysis would be prohibitive).

So, returning back to my previous statement, “can a keyword (google like) search mechanism replace a finding aid?” This can lead us to many different tangents: pattern recognition, educational pedagogies, evolving societal structures, post-modernism (everything seems to be post-modernist now, see: Postmodernism and Logical Positivism in Archival Thought on the topic of post-modernism and archives) and so on. However, while keyword federated searching has its obvious strengths, it cannot possibly address the contextual, evidential and structural nature of unbounded finite interrelated items. The items within a records group, series or collection have the peculiar uniqueness of having both interconnected intrinsic and extrinsic substance and essence. Capturing a keyword (or any single meta data item) is very important for searching but it can never replace the macro-contextualization of information. Take the example of the Google book project; if Google were able to scan all of the books in the world and provide ocr’d searchable text, would we still need book cataloging? Many people out there would probably at first glance say no. But if we were to analyze this proposition further, we would deny ourselves valuable information that is only captured at the cataloging phase: the provenance, context, subject analysis, and many more areas to numerous to name (I’m sure catalogers could come up with a million).  However, the importance of the finding aid is even more critical to unpublished records.

The finding aid takes raw materials and contextualizes them. That contextualization describes the records provenance, history, structures, and external and internal relationships. Simply ocr’ing a text and making digital surrogates available, while incredibly useful for accessibility purposes, would not address those areas stated before. So, the question isn’t should the finding aid survive but what form will it take when records are no longer analog?  This will directly effect how the archivist analyzes data or digital forms on a server, optical disk or hard drive. We have stated the ontological importance of the finding aid. In the next blog we will go into the new areas of analysis that a finding aid must address in the new information age and further discuss the philosophical implications.

  1. Michelle Light and Tom Hyry, “Colophons and Annotations: New Directions for the Finding Aid,” American Archivist 65 (Fall/Winter 2002): 216-30.
  2. Joseph Gabel, False Consciousness: An Essay on Reification (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).
  3. For further discussion on hypostatisation and reification, See: Georg Lukacs’s essay, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.”

Archival Appraisal and Selection in the Information Society

With the amount of information being created it would seem that technology has only created more problems than it has solved. Now archivists have a plethora of information to analyze (but beyond the question of quantity, there is also the question of stability and ease of destruction) and more questions that seem to have no answers: new mediums of information, with criteria and categories that sometimes have no relation to the past? The belief that all appraisal is local and subjective,1 without acknowledging the digital world breaking down previous spatial barriers?  Finally, post-modernism2 points out that we are all prisoners of our subjectivity (or appearance)3 incapable from escaping the shadows in the cave, raising the specter of a totalitarian subjectivity. Regardless of the many questions that must be addressed, I believe a continued improvement of our archival causality will aid in overcoming the supposed subjective/objective (post-modernist) impasse.  In the mean time, all of these questions will be carried over into the new temporal and spatial contexts, with seemingly no answers. (I briefly touched on some of these points in a previous blog, History and Future of Archival Thought and Practice.)

At the heart of the new technological paradigm are still the same archival issues: what records (or data) describes our society, what mediums are people and entities using to convey their beliefs, needs and histories, and what means will we use to describe and arrange these new mediums. I don’t believe that we need to collect anything drastically different but we have to know how the new information topologies have created or altered content and we must document the process, intention, philosophy and subjectivity of documentary evidence.  Precedent will carry us forward and answer many of our selection and appraisal questions. It is not a-priori knowledge but a-posteriori that will be applied in many situations, we may believe we are recreating the wheel but in fact we really are borrowing and building upon previous pedagogies.4 But the most profound difference will lie in our ability to draw closer to archival causality.5 It is that search for causality or innate search for knowledge of the external world that will draw us towards better conclusions.

As Archivists we already have a-posteriori category knowledge (in other words many record series will be duplicated both for convenience and because of pattern recognition6) from our previous analog work but whatever form our selection and description takes us-it must be documented. It has been stated that we need to annotate our arrangement and description as a means to overcome the deficiency of subjective arrangement and description.7 I will take it one step further and declare that we need to annotate our appraisal and acquisition decisions as well.

Annotating our appraisal and selection decisions will give us greater insight into records and the systems that created them. With electronic records these annotations could describe how records were created (databases, HTML text, or on-line search engines). Another question that will need to be confronted is what are the functions of these systems and how do they lend themselves to the new records creating process. Also, documentation of why certain systems were used for retrieval and not others, will be significant. The how will not be as difficult as the why. The complexity of how, will be in the front-end costs of digital archiving and the specialized skills that are needed. This possibly will lead to increased cooperation among system creators,  (DSpace and Fedora are just two examples). But all of that will fail if we don’t answer the basic ontological and teleological questions and develop a more sophisticated systematic methodology of documentary causality.

One way to accomplish this important endeavor is to turn to the philosophy of science. Philosophers such as Bertrand Russell (and his five causal postulates),8Aristotle’s Four Causes and Mario Bunge’s work in the causal9 field give archivists a good starting point for developing an improved causal rule set. By adopting a more sophisticated methodology, archivist’s will draw closer to relevant facts (documentary evidence and its relations) and improved decision making (better appraisal and selection). Some will argue that it is not feasible to apply rules from the empirical sciences to archival work, to some extent that may be true (even others will declare this is being done already when they answer the who, where, when, how and why of documents) but we can still improve our decision making process by having a formal set of rules to guide us. In my next blog on appraisal and selection, I will address its feasibility.

  1. Mark A. Greene and Todd J. Daniels-Howel, “Documentation with an Attitude: A Pragmatist’s Guide to the Selection and Acquisition of Modern Business Records,” in The Records of American Business, ed. James M.O’Toole (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1997), 162.
  2. Terry Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts,” Archival Science, vol. 1, no. 1 (2000): 3-24.
  3. H.A. Prichard, “Appearances and Reality,” Mind, Vol. 15, No. 58, (Apr., 1906): 223-229.
  4. Linda J. Henry, “Schellenberg in Cyberspace,” American Archivist, Vol. 61, (Fall 1998): 309-327.
  5. Not a simplistic causality (where the first is the cause of the next, usually associated with David Hume) but a more complex epistemology, more in line with Bertrand Russell’s Five Postulates of Causality. See, Human Knowledge.
  6. Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language: towns, buildings, construction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
  7. Michelle Light and Tom Hyry, “Colophons and Annotations: New Directions for the Finding Aid,” American Archivist 65 (Fall/Winter 2002): 216-30.
  8. Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (London: Allen and Unwin, 1948).
  9. Mario Bunge, Causality and Modern Science (New York: Dover Publications, 1979).